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Six Important Lessons I Learnt in Mental Health First Aid

How many of us even know the signs that someone is struggling with their mental wellbeing? Granted, it is not as obvious as the signs of a stroke, and not as immediate. It requires being perceptive, asking questions, and most importantly, listening.

Not very many of us would dispute the importance of receiving medical first aid training...

Although it is still not mandatory in schools or workplaces, (a highly contentious subject in itself), the knowledge of how to administer CPR, or recognise a stroke or heart attack could be incredibly important at some point in our lives. It could well be the difference between life and death.

The British Red Cross and St John's Ambulance run courses up and down the country teaching members of the public, employees, and front line workers how to carry out life saving measures.

But what about when it comes to our mental health? After all, statistically we are far more likely to be suffering from a mental illness in our workplace than we are likely to have a heart attack, or serious burn or electric shock.

How many of us even know the signs that someone is struggling with their mental wellbeing? Granted, it is not as obvious as the signs of a stroke, and not as immediate. It requires being perceptive, asking questions, and most importantly, listening. But in the same way as medical first aid training, knowing how to approach a potential mental health issue is very important. In some circumstances it can also be the difference between life and death.

I recently went on a two day Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) Training Course run by Twining Enterprise, and even though I work in mental health, the amount of new things I learnt was astounding. So I thought I would share some of them with you as they changed my idea of how we approach mental health with the people around us.

1) We are all on the spectrum, so let's talk about it!

'Mental health' affects all of us, whether we are at the healthy end of the spectrum right now, at some point we might not be, and being able to open up when our mental health is slipping is as important as being honest about our physical health. One in four people will experience mental illness at some point in their lives, if you think about all of the people that you know, that's a pretty significant number. Knowing how to talk to them about it is essential.

2) Prolonged stress is one of the leading causes of anxiety and depression

This isn't rocket science. If you are exposed to a stressful situation for too long, and nothing changes then your mental processes lose the ability to cope. Your ability to deal with stress changes throughout your life depending on your level of vulnerability at the time, which can be to do with your physical health, your home life, or a number of other factors. But the source of stress isn't set in stone. Having an honest conversation with your boss about a stressful element in your job may well lead to a reduction in your stress levels. The most important thing is to not let the stress build to breaking point before questioning its source.

3) Listening doesn't mean giving advice

Asking someone what is going on in their life, or how their feeling, doesn't mean you that you have to solve the problem for them. Sometimes it is enough to just to sit, listen, empathise and don't judge. As someone who has suffered from a mental illness I would say that just having someone who I felt understood in even a small way how I felt was a great comfort. You might not necessarily change the way they are feeling, but you can assure them they are not alone, and you are there to help if they need it.

4) If you suspect someone is suicidal, don't be afraid to ask them about it!

This is the subject that usually scares people the most. It can be easy to pass off a remark about killing yourself as empty, or a cry for attention, but asking the right questions can lead to someone opening up and seeking help. It is estimated that 75% of people who commit suicide have not had any contact with a mental health professional in the past year. This means that generally they have not been receiving any help or support. If someone mentions they are going to kill themselves, then don't dismiss it, and don't be afraid to ask them if they thought about how they would do it. This can help to clarify if you think they are serious, and they are in immediate danger. Whatever answer they give it's important to signpost them to mental health support, tell someone else, and if you think they are in any immediate danger stay with them and call 111 or 999.

5) Panic attack? Slow down their breathing

When someone is having a panic attack it can be a very scary thing. Not only for the person involved but for whoever is close by. It can also be difficult to know what to do. The most important thing is to get them to slow down their breathing. Fast and shallow breathing leads to too much oxygen which makes them feel like they are having a heart attack. Get them to look at you, breathing slowly in and out. To get them to focus it can be helpful to get them to follow the motion of your arm as it moves up for three seconds with the in breath, down for three seconds with the out breath. Once they regain a normal speed of breathing the panic attack should stop.

6) Self harm isn't just cutting yourself

When we think about self harm this is what most of us think about. In fact, self harm can be anything from sleeping too little, drinking too much, smoking, eating badly, or overworking. It is basically any act in which we are neglecting our wellbeing. I think if most of us look at that list then we would admit to at least one of those at some point in our lives, if not regularly! Do we consider them as harming our mental health? Probably not, we just consider them as part of our modern day lives.

But with rates of mental illness such as depression and anxiety soaring over recent decades it is time we started thinking about these things in a different way. It is time we started monitoring our own mental health, and that of those around us before they reach crisis point.